There are two responses to the topic of this article (at each extreme end).
Response No. 1: Did you really just ask that? Haven’t you been reading about harassment allegations against famous — okay, notorious — athletes, politicians, journalists, actors and others? What, are you looking for trouble?
Response No. 2: You have to be the best supervisor, manager, boss, business owner I have ever heard of. How human of you. How marvelously compassionate. We all care about each other at our place of employment, and all any of us want is to help you however we can.
Which response did you prefer? In other words, what type of employer are you, and what type of employer do you want to be?
There are many employers who believe that they need to be wary of an employee with marital or other family legal issues because anything they say to the employee about the issue can come back to bite them with an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint, lawsuit or even worse. And these “defensive” employers would not be wrong. They have a business to protect, other employees who rely on their employment and more.
But it is kind of inhumane to have the emotionally traumatized employee spilling his or her guts out to you while you stand or sit there like an automaton, offering no consolation, words of hope or active assistance.
So, what are you supposed to do? Here are a few alternative responses and their consequences.
The Hands-Off Boss
You are not the type of boss who feels comfortable talking with employees about emotions and problems. You would rather jump off a bridge, repeatedly. That is OK; you are not alone. You are highly protective of your business. So, you simply say nothing and walk away from your highly emotional employee.
Do you see the problem here? Do you value your employee? Well, the employee might not value you anymore, which could be a problem if the person is a valued employee.
The Listening Boss – For Awhile
Initially, you want to let your employee vent and let you know what is going on in his or her life. And the employee needs that outlet. You understand that. But enough is enough.
Once the person’s divorce has been going on for months — or years — it is not reasonable for an employer to have to hear about it repeatedly in the workplace. Those are the employees who need to be counseled to see a therapist. If it is affecting the individual’s performance, consult your Human Resources (HR) specialist or employment attorney. You might need to take greater action.
The Rules and Referring (to HR or Others) Boss
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this type of employer. It would be helpful to add a bit of humanity, of course, but let the professionals do their job.
The Scared Boss – It’s All a Trap for Me
This is today’s boss. The employment culture, as reported by the media, is at an all-time low. No more fun holiday parties for fear of being labeled an abuser. Everyone is on edge at all times, especially if there are employees who you think are watching you like a hawk, waiting for you to cross some boundary and then report you.
So, what does this boss do? Refer the employee to HR, and keep your distance.
The Empathetic Boss
This is also today’s boss. But it is the boss who values his or her employees, wants what is best for them, and is willing to listen, but act within appropriate boundaries. That employer is going to be there for his or her employees, but also will know when it is time to let the employee know it is time to get some help, time to stop talking about his or her problem at the workplace and time to find a way to move forward and make work a happy place.
The Overly Involved Boss
Some employers also have been through difficult divorces. Their agenda is to help their employee with his or her agenda. That is a dangerous employer.
Expect everything bad to happen to you if become your employee’s champion: complaints, lawsuits, investigations, potential criminal actions and more. Ever hear of transference? That is when your employee makes you the bad person. And then expect bad things to happen to you.
What’s the Answer?
Know who you are as an employer or other type of supervisor. Know the rules where you work. Then apply your personality.
If you are the type of employer who does not want to get involved with an employee going through a life-changing event that will make him or her a less productive employee for a significant period of time, do your business a favor and get your employee to someone who will.
On the other hand, if you are an employer who wants to be a hand-holder and champion for your employee as
s/he goes through his or her traumatic life transition, do your business a favor and read your employee manual, talk with other employers and back off to a discreet distance where you can be supportive but not a future defendant in a harassment action, and certainly not a fact witness in your employee’s divorce trial.
There are many resources from which employers can get advice. They include internal HR managers, external HR companies and employment attorneys. They also include speaking to a highly experienced divorce attorney, asking the attorney for advice to forward to the employee.
There are many resources for employers to suggest their employee turn to. First and foremost, get the person to a highly experienced divorce attorney who can educate and advise the employee and get him or her back to you, quickly and productively. If you feel comfortable, advise the employee to get a mental health counselor. Some employers have the ability to get an employee to an internal or external Employee Assistance Program or equivalent. Check your employee manual.
Be human. Be humane. Be helpful. Act to get your employee back on track. But be safe. Protect your business. Protect yourself.
Harry Siegel, the managing partner at SIEGELLAW, is a divorce and family law attorney in Howard County. He may be reached at 410-792-2300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.